WASHINGTON- On June 26, Nia Sammons, 29, finally got the email she was hoping for: she was one of 50 spouses selected for the Military Spouse Fellowship Program, which offers a free course to earn certification as an Accredited Financial Counselor®, a job perfectly suited to military families on the move. Sammons was one of 50 Fellows announced on August 9.

“I remember that day, it was raining really bad,” Sammons said. “Once I saw the acceptance email I was stoked because of the opportunity to extend my career [options], but most importantly, being able to help families and communities gain control of their financial needs.”

The fellowship, started in 2006, offers an Accredited Financial Counselor certification, which will allow her to advise military families and others on how to manage their finances. The program is funded by FINRA Investor Education Foundation with the certification administered by AFCPE®.

According to a study published by Blue Star Families, which advocates for military families, spouses have an unemployment rate of 32 percent, in large part because military families move so frequently.

While a fellowship doesn’t guarantee a job, Stefanie Craig, 28, who lives in Chesapeake, Virginia and is a 2016 Fellow, has a Masters Degree in counseling. She said counseling jobs are not always transferable from state to state. But when she finishes her fellowship course, she will have a certificate that is recognized nationally.

“When I move next, which will happen, once I have this [certificate] I don’t have to redo it the next state I go to,” she said. “That is a huge benefit.”

2016 Military Spouse Fellow Stefanie Craig with her husband, Charles, and their son (Photo Courtesy of Stefanie Craig).

Craig said that she and her husband, Charles, who is in the Navy, expect to be moving by 2020. The process is always stressful– spouses often change careers, which can mean a disruption in income and at the same time families must adjust to living in a new location.

The need for such programs has grown as U.S. military engagement overseas has increased. When the fellowship program started, U.S. forces were serving increasingly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of those deployed were reservists or National Guard members. According to Bud Schneeweis, director of FINRA’s Military Financial Readiness Project, which funds the fellowship, the sudden surge of deployments caught some military families financially unprepared.

“You have to keep in mind that military members often enter the service at a young age,” Schneeweis said. “They don’t have a whole lot of financial experience, many of them have not been out on their own before.”

He said that financial inexperience can be a problem when military members come home from duty.

“For a lot of folks, it’s the first steady jobs that they’ve held,” Schneeweis said. “They’re reasonably well compensated for their position in life and when they deploy and come back, many of them have large sums of money burning a hole in their pocket and there are a lot of folks that would like to separate them from that large wad of money.”

Sammons said she agreed with what Schneeweis was describing, and said she did encounter financial troubles of her own when she was younger.

“A lot of families and [service members] who are in the younger age category, they just don’t know how to budget,” she said. “They’re going from paycheck to paycheck, … it seems like a couple days after payday they’ve kind of depleted their account.”

Now benefitting from experience, Sammons said family finances are stable, and she and her husband are doing well with their three children, including 13-month-old twin girls. Having a young family can compound financial pressures, especially for military families. Sammons, who is working now and wants to open her own personal finance business.

According to Schneeweis, the passion that Sammons and Craig share for helping their fellow military families and communities is the single biggest factor in choosing the fellows. Craig said that the certification is a great add on for her current career working with at-risk and low income students, and she wants to move towards financial counseling.

“I think that anytime military spouses can get things like this and be successful with them, it’s great for the community,” Craig said. “I hope to focus more on financial counseling and helping military families with this licensure.”

As part of the program, fellows will take online classes and gain experience in the field. Once the program is complete, the fellows are qualified to “support the military community as financial counselors at family readiness and support centers, credit counseling and tax centers, financial aid offices and credit unions throughout the U.S. and abroad,” according to the FINRA Foundation.

The foundation supports the program along with the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education® (AFCPE®) and the National Military Family Association.

Since 2006, the program has granted almost 1,500 fellowships to military spouses. The spouses have spent more than 447,700 hours counseling more than 170,000 service members on their finances, according to FINRA.

The date the fellowship application becomes available changes slightly from year to year, but it is typically opened in late February or early March and remains open for six weeks. It is open to male and female spouses alike. The application can be found here.

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